What the Failure of the Geneva Talks Means

By Ammar Abdulhamid
Monday, April 25, 2016, 10:31 AM

The Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee’s (HNC) withdrawal from the Geneva talks is fundamentally a reflection of the Obama administration’s failure to reach a clear agreement with Putin regarding transitional arrangements, including both the nature of the administrative partitioning of Syria and matters unrelated to Syria but nonetheless incorporated into the Syria talks.

More specifically however, the HNC decision came in protest of the Russian-backed proposal submitted by the Assad regime to the UN Syria Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, which called for the formation of a national unity government under the rule of the country’s current leader Bashar Al-Assad. Assad’s major war crimes have been extensively documented by international monitors.

This proposal is utterly impractical, because it changes nothing in terms of regime’s structure. Therefore, the HNC could not accept it without losing the support of rebel groups not to mention the general goodwill among millions of Syrians who continue to believe in the revolution precisely because of the costs they all have had to pay: deaths, torture, detention, dislocation, humiliation, among other atrocities. The opposition movement was never going to accept such a proposal, and Russia’s backing it at this late stage—after months of extensive talks in Geneva and between Russia and the United States—sets the clock back to the days before the Geneva Process ever commenced.

There are rational and pragmatic voices who assert that any solution which stops the violence at this stage should be acceptable because, no matter who is in power, the country has been irrevocably changed by the revolution. The old ways simply cannot return. And they would argue that, in a sense, the regime has already lost the battle—Assad sealed his fate when he turned to Iran and Russia. Though I myself subscribe to this view, it has few backers within the opposition ranks. This might, in itself, suggest that there is no one within the opposition prepared to provide the kind of long-term leadership to capitalize on the regime’s glaring weakness to achieve politically and diplomatically what could not be accomplished by military means.

Because there is no one situated to actually lead the opposition in a way that could defeat Assad politically should he stay in power as the head of a unity government, it may be wise that the HNC is refusing to accept any proposal that keeps Assad there.

Syria lacks the charismatic and popular leaders who might prevail on the people to swallow the bitter pill of Assad’s staying as part of a transitional arrangement and thereby gain the time and the opportunity to carry out the struggle through political means. And, contrary to orientalist misconceptions, Levantine culture does not easily allow for the emergence of such leaders. Hafiz Al-Assad and Saddam Hussein were exceptions in this regard, not because of any genuine charisma, but because they imposed themselves through brute force, the dirtiest and bloodiest of politics, and continuous brainwashing through state media and the educational system. Despite their initial success and ongoing campaigns, these pale representations of traditional sultans were still secretly reviled by the majorities in Syria and Iraq for their brutality, corruption and sectarian games.

The current leader of the HNC is emerging as the most professional figure that the Syrian opposition has thus far produced—which should serve as an indictment of the entire political culture in the Levant. Of course, Bashar Al-Assad and members of his extended family are a far greater indictment, especially because so many Syrians continue to be loyal to Assad under the mistaken belief he and his ilk represent the “lesser evil” or are “smarter” and “more credible” than opposition figures. This misguided belief allows for the justification and legitimation of all manner of brutality, no matter the scale. As such, it could not help in fixing any of the problems that paved our way to the current mayhem.

The inability to produce charismatic leaders—and the tendency to try to destroy those who show promise in this regard—is not the reflections of some democratic impulse or egalitarian ethos as some in the opposition argue. This trend is instead borne out of envy, narcissism and nihilistic individualism and not fear of oppression. At the risk of overgeneralization, the mindset encapsulated by the famous statement “Aprés moi, le deluge!” seems to represent that of the average Levantine citizen, and not only Levant’s rulers. This is the reason why pragmatic and charismatic leaders will not emerge at this stage, regardless of the dire need for them. We simply have to make do with what we have. In practice, this calls for having to accept figures armed with mediocre potential and limited intellectual capacity. But as long as they are not mass murderers, this will represent an improvement for Syria.

Indeed, if the immediate concern in Syria is peace, then at this stage no side should appear to be a loser. Unfortunately, the Russian-backed proposal, in fact, asks the opposition to capitulate. Things don’t have to be this way.

In the summer of 2015, I submitted a proposal to various concerned parties that called for Assad’s resignation from the presidency while allowing him to remain as leader of a political coalition representing the Baath and other loyalist parties. I noted that Assad, if he chooses, can later even run for the high office in free and internationally monitored elections, allowing for refugees and expatriates to vote as well. Meanwhile, he and the HNC can nominate representatives of their respective political coalitions to take part in a true transitional unity government. The idea of creating a military council, as currently proposed, is also welcome, provided the process is carried in the same manner used for choosing the transitional government.

This proposal drew guarded but positive reactions from opposition leaders, and it appears that the HNC went to Geneva expecting a deal along these lines, which nonetheless represents a major compromise on their part. I continue to believe that this is the only way forward, though giving Bashar Al-Assad a pass on his crimes against humanity turns my stomach. But if it brings peace, so be it. After all, how many people were held accountable for the Lebanese or Sudanese civil wars? Moreover, the Levant has its own less subtle but perhaps more poetic ways of dealing with people like Assad. The father lived to see his favorite son and then heir apparent Bassil die in a car accident in 1993, and it broke him. Now his lesser favorite son, Bashar, is supervising the destruction of the realm, literally squandering the ill-begotten family inheritance. Soon, he will become useless to his allies, and as such, dispensable. To some this may appear as wishful thinking; to me, it’s simply the befitting ending for a mediocre Levantine tyrant whose folly makes inevitable.

Still, the creation of the International Criminal Court and the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect were intended to avoid having to settle for such unappealing arrangements—allowing war criminals to escape legal accountability, even when one can see a different kind of accountability looming. But, considering the lack of moral fortitude on the part of the Obama administration and various European governments in the face of Assad’s impunity, this may well be the best we can hope to achieve at this stage.

The lesser evil in Syria, then, is not about choosing this figure over that. It is instead about choosing a practical settlement that may not immediately deliver on the expectations of the erstwhile revolutionaries but can still work for all sides—excluding the Islamic State and like-minded movements—by breaking with the past, even as it pardons war criminals like Assad. And of course the opposition did field war criminals of its own, though their respective contribution is a mole hill compared to Assad’s mountain.

For some period of time, it appeared that the Russians were inclined to go even further and were willing to ask—or force—Assad to leave the country entirely. But since their talks with the United States seem to have faltered, and seeing the Obama administration remains committed to its do-nothing stand, for Syria, it’s back to square one.